Monday, August 28, 2006

Respecting the "Sheeple"

Loving Non-Libertarians As If They Never Hurt You…

One of the greatest challenges in the libertarian movement is reaching out to non-libertarians. Some people within the libertarian movement – due to frustration no doubt – have developed a rather scornful attitude towards non-libertarians. I believe that this is the greatest inhibitor to our eventual success as a movement, and I would like to make the case here for benevolence and respect towards non-libertarians.

As an intellectual movement, we will only succeed if we change the mind of others, and so discovering the most effective methods of communication is essential. And before asking how we should change other people's minds, it is well worth asking: what changed my mind?

I believe that the answer to this question will not only new breed more effective communication, but will also foster a growing benevolence towards non-libertarians.

In my own case, libertarianism was an “instant high” for me – and was also almost totally accidental! A friend of mine listened to the rock band Rush, whose drummer was a fan of Ayn Rand. My friend passed me a copy of The Fountainhead, and I fell in love with the ideas within about two pages.

Almost all libertarians that I have ever talked to had a similar kind of “instant epiphany,” wherein they felt that a new world opening up for them, and that they were able to start really using their minds the first time in their lives.

When you really take the time to sit down and ruminate on this process, it is very instructive. Most of us became libertarians because we loved the ideas when we first encountered them. Our passion for the ideas led us to develop the logic of the position. The passion, the pleasure, the excitement – all these emotional experiences came first. The elucidation and rational verification came later.

It seems impossible that within reading a few pages of The Fountainhead, I was able to rationally grasp and process objectivist philosophy. What Ayn Rand called “a sense of life” spoke to me from the pages of her novel. A deep aspect of my personality responded to the passionate individualism of her characters and language. As I learned more and more about objectivism and libertarianism, I confirmed all of my initial impressions, but I was driven to study philosophy because of my pleasure in the process. I became more rational not as a result of logical arguments, but rather because I enjoyed studying logical arguments.

This is a crucial distinction, and something that is essential for libertarians to understand. There are certain souls in the world that are naturally drawn to liberty, and all that is required is that these souls be exposed to rational ideas, and everything follows from there. (There are also certain souls in the world that are naturally hostile to liberty, and no amount of exposure or argument will ever change them!)

What should most concern us as libertarians, are those in the middle – those who are neither naturally drawn to, nor naturally averse to, ideas of liberty. It is these people that we must reach if we are to succeed as a movement.

Once we understand that it was our passionate and pleasurable initial reaction to logical arguments that drew us down the road of philosophy, we can also begin to appreciate that such a reaction is very uncommon. I did not voluntarily choose to find philosophy so pleasurable – it was a complete surprise to me! Thus I cannot really say that my lifelong study of philosophy is the result of listening to rational arguments, but rather from following my own pleasure. I believe that the study of philosophy has granted me a certain virtue and wisdom which I would not have possessed otherwise, but I did not possess those attributes at the beginning of my journey.

If a love of philosophy is to some degree innate, than it cannot be a source of personal pride. If I am prone to weight gain, but work hard to maintain a healthy weight, I can take pride in that accomplishment. If, however, I am naturally thin, then maintaining a healthy weight cannot logically be a source of pride. Most libertarians are “naturally philosophical”, in the same way that Mozart was “naturally musical”, and so for it to be a source of pride and superiority is fundamentally irrational.

Now Mozart would probably have been just about the worst piano teacher in the world, since what came so naturally, easily and pleasurably for him comes very hard for other people. If Mozart wanted to become a good piano teacher, he would have to understand that his own natural talents and capacities were not shared by the general population, and that he would have to approach things slowly and respectfully in order to transfer his knowledge effectively. If Mozart kept calling his students stupid for failing to grasp musical concepts and write symphonies at the age of seven, they would probably not find the experience very pleasurable, and would probably not end up learning a whole lot about music!

The emotional approach of many libertarians to non-libertarians is similar – concepts that come easily to libertarians are very hard for non-libertarians to grasp. This does not mean that non-libertarians are stupid, corrupt, evil, stubborn – or any of the other lovely epithets often bestowed upon them by libertarians! If you are trying to transfer knowledge to someone, and they reject that knowledge, that is always and forever your responsibility. Either you chose someone incapable of understanding what you're trying to tell them, or they were capable of understanding it but you have failed to communicate effectively. Blaming the listener is irrational.

It is also important to understand how libertarianism looks to non-libertarians. It remains sort of a “fringe belief,” of which there are far too many in this irrational world! When the average citizen considers libertarianism, he or she will look to the experts, just as most of us do when surveying unfamiliar fields. What will he see? Well, when he flips on CNN, he sees no libertarians on panel discussions. When he opens his newspaper, he sees no almost libertarian editorials. When he looks at universities, he sees almost no libertarian professors. When he reviews expert literature, he finds very few libertarian positions. When he looks at the thoughts of many of the most intelligent members of the human race, such as Einstein, Russell, Mill, Keynes and so on, he finds socialism or statism advocated in many forms. When he thinks back on his own state education, he recalls no libertarian positions, but endless streams of pro-state “facts.” Can we rationally condemn him for his skepticism? Because he equates “capitalism” with child slavery and the Great Depression, we appear to him like a doctor arguing against antibiotics and for a return to leeching!

Furthermore – and this is a very a very important fact – most individuals will face significant social – and probably professional – repercussions for accepting libertarian positions. Conversations with their families, friends and colleagues will probably become quite uncomfortable. If they have children, they may have to “de-program” them – and reversals in parental moral instructions can be very difficult, both for the parent and child (or, heaven forbid, the teenager!). And what if the person you are trying to enlighten is a public school teacher, or a professor? If he accepts your position, he will have to realize that the vast majority of his career has been spent communicating falsehoods – and thus also punishing the rare student who spoke the truth! This would be quite a bitter pill for any educator to swallow!

Furthermore, even if they switch their positions, we cannot tell them "then, we will triumph, and the power of the state will be curtailed". We really are asking for a lot – ostracism, endless social and professional conflicts, a reversal of all prior ethical beliefs – and for what? Some possible victory in the far future! From a cost/benefit standpoint, it is a pretty tough case to make!

People are responsible for their beliefs, of course, and I am not saying “no one is accountable,” but I think that we need to approach non-libertarians by sharing enthusiasm, not radiating superiority. We all spend good portions of our lives – whether we are teachers are not – communicating about moral and philosophical issues. Asking people to reverse their positions in these areas is asking them to accept that they have hitherto lived their lives communicating falsely about the most essential issues in the world.

This is not to say that we should not try – or that because we have natural abilities in the realm of philosophy that philosophy is subjective, or requires these natural abilities – but it is very important for us to retain our humility in the face of our talents, and not damn those who struggle with what comes so easily to us. Contempt or hostility towards those lacking abilities in a particular area is not a mark of confidence or superiority, but rather insecurity and vanity, and will not save the world. If we are to be the teachers of mankind, we must first and foremost respect our students.

The Grave Danger of Self Defense

I get scads of emails about two positions I hold.

  1. The principle of self-defense is relatively unimportant, and

  2. You live a peaceful life, so you are proof that a stateless society can work.

A communicator must always take responsibility for misunderstandings, so, as a clarification, here is a more detailed description of what I mean.
  1. Self-defense is a red herring
I talk about this in a podcast called “Forget about Self-Defense”, which has led many people to believe that I am a radical pacifist, who would not lift a finger to oppose a home invasion.

I perfectly support the principle of self-defense, but view it to be an unimportant – and, frankly, dangerous – principle in practice.

People who support “self defense” usually view it as a very important principle, central to life in society and crucial to questions of ethics.

I could not disagree more – and my disagreement is fundamental, since it deals more with methodology than conclusions.

To develop my ideas, I try to work empirically, from my own life to the lives of those I know, to general evidence, and then on up to the logical abstract world of concepts and principles. I think this is a more scientific (and anti-Platonic) approach, more grounded in real life, which eschews abstractions not derived from “real world” examples.

So when I think of the “right to self defense”, I think: “OK, when has this right been useful in my life? How many times have I had to stare down 12 ninjas with holding only a broken bottle and found this moral principle to be valuable? Conversely, when have I been in situations of imminent violence and worried about the principle of self-defense?”

And I have to say: well, never!

I grew up in a rough neighborhood, with lots of bullies, and let me tell you something – the principle of self-defense never really comes up with bullies, since they never attack anyone really capable of, or willing to, defending himself. (For more on this, see Bush’s approach to Iraq versus North Korea.)

I was only bullied a few times in my life, and each time the bully was approximately 12 times my size, or I was outnumbered approximately 12-1. “My lunch money? Absolutely, here you go, would you like a kidney too, sir?”

No possibility for self-defense. A nice idea in principle, but in reality

I was also sent to boarding school, where you got caned for disobedience. Self defense? Impossible. Your best hope was self protection – i.e. put a comic book down your trousers and pray!

Now I have to pay 50% of my money in taxes. Self-defense against the state? Impossible!

Thus, when I look at my life, I find that I have never been in a single solitary situation in my life where self-defense was even a remotely viable strategy. Now I could be an anomaly, but I also have never met anyone who was ever able to use personal self-defense as a viable strategy.

Of course, I recognize that such situations do exist – just as agonizing decisions exist regarding brain function and euthanasia – but they are scarcely the norm, and surely not at – or even near – the top of most pressing moral issues.

And why is this issue even important? Why is focusing on “self defense” dangerous?

Well, because it’s so often used as a justification for the state. The argument runs something like this: “We all have the right to self-defense, but some people cannot defend themselves, so we need an agency that will defend them, which is the state.”

The logical – and moral – problem with this is, of course, that if people exist who cannot defend themselves from mere individual criminals, how on earth can they possibly defend themselves against the state? In other words, if you’re afraid of being exploited by violent people, is armed might of the modern state less dangerous than a mugger?

Turning to the state for self-protection is like avoiding a bee by running off a cliff.

Criminals exist, of course, and can be dangerous, and can do great harm – and it is the very fact that sociopaths exist that makes the creation of a state such a deadly mistake! Imagining that you can create a monopolistic agency of pure violence and not automatically attract sociopaths to populate it is one of the greatest illusions of the species! The more that you fear criminals, the less you should ever support the existence of the state! If criminals are dangerous, the state will be totally deadly. If criminals are not so dangerous, the state is unnecessary.

In order to preserve the right to “self defense”, we get the following absurdities:

  • To protect their persons, people submit to states that draft them, declare wars, provoke attacks, and arrest and imprison citizens for non-violent “crimes”.

  • To protect their property, people submit to states that strip that property through taxes, subject them to endless regulations, destroy their currency, load them with public debts, and openly that that property through the force of law.

Does that mean that we give up on the principle of self-defense? Of course not. But the real goal of “self-defense” should be the prevention of violence, rather than the affirmation of our right to shoot attackers. Moral philosophy is like medicine – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – and currently, our doctors are on the verge of “healing us to death.”
  1. You live a peaceful life, so you are an example of a stateless society.
People also get confused about this one – which is my fault, of course. I recently got an email from a woman who lived in a bad neighborhood telling me that I had no idea how violent society could be – and that without a government, society would dissolve into a death match of endless warring gangs etc etc etc.

This is very common – and interesting – argument. Of course, when I ask such people how the state is protecting them now, they tell me that it isn’t protecting them at all! What happens when she call the cops? Nothing! And is there welfare, drug gangs, public housing, government schools and so on in her neighborhood? Of course!

Thus her objection to a stateless society is fascinating, and speaks volumes about the effectiveness of state propaganda.

Such people see no contradiction between these four positions:

  1. There is too much violence in my neighborhood to get rid of the state.

  2. The state is responsible for most of that violence.

  3. The state is not protecting me from the violence it creates.

  4. Therefore getting rid of the state is impossible!

This would be akin to a sick person saying:

  1. I am too sick to get rid of my doctor.

  2. My doctor is poisoning me.

  3. My doctor is not giving me an antidote to that poison.

  4. Therefore changing doctors is impossible!

Do you see what a “death spiral” this sort of logic represents?

Either violence is not common in your world, in which case you do not need a state, or violence is common in your world, in which case the state, as ‘educator’ and ‘protector’, is primarily responsible for the dangers you face.

Either way, we need a new doctor. And time is running out.